The interview is not going well. We've barely begun talking and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is already staring back at Kulchur with the expression of a woman who's just swallowed a mouthful of sour milk.
"It wasn't until we finished the script that we contacted Almodóvar," she insists sharply, referring to her new film The Holy Girl and its executive producer, Spain's reigning cinematic bad boy, Pedro Almodóvar. "At the same time," she adds a bit too quickly, "I'm a great admirer of Almodóvar." Well, who isn't?
Of course, when Almodóvar signed on as her backer, bringing with him much-needed financing as well as all the international press attention that accompanies his bold-faced name, Martel had no idea The Holy Girl would be released at the same time as Almodóvar's latest, Bad Education, or that both movies would revolve around similar themes of pedophilia and religion.
The two pictures debuted concurrently at this past fall's edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, and now, after The Holy Girl's screening at this week's Miami International Film Festival, it follows Bad Education's tracks into American theaters nationwide. And regardless of its own merits, it's hard for Martel's movie not to be overshadowed -- particularly since Bad Education is arguably Almodóvar's finest since his Eighties heyday. You can almost imagine the publicists at HBO Films, The Holy Girl's distributor, frantically working up a new media pitch: "It's the other feel-good pedophilia flick of the season!"
"Every time in a film there is something perverted that is not condemned, it's seen as a tribute to Almodóvar -- and that's fine with me," Martel explains in a tone that suggests such an interpretation is anything but fine with her.
The Holy Girl is not without its own intriguing charms as it follows the sexual coming-of-age of a teenage Maria Alché playing a moody Lolita to Carlos Belloso's tortured Humbert Humbert, draping the duo's odd encounters with plenty of sanctified imagery and ethereal moments. Just don't utter the word metaphor to Martel: "I never intend to use metaphors," she retorts, fixing Kulchur with that sourpuss gaze again, "but I understand why some viewers might see them. Some viewers see metaphors and allegories in all of Latin American cinema."
If Kulchur's visible disappointment with The Holy Girl is about to get a drink tossed on him, so be it. Because for all of her new film's qualities, it still pales beside Martel's wondrous first feature, 2001's La Cienaga, which announced not only the arrival of a major new talent but of an entirely fresh voice within Latin cinema. That film's audacious take on Argentina's 2001 financial collapse -- that the culprit was neither a corrupt president, the International Monetary Fund, nor that familiar standby of Yanqui imperialism, but instead the country's own decadent middle class -- was matched only by its equally striking cinematography.
Capturing a pampered family besotted on a heady cocktail of red wine and its own malaise, Martel's camera seemed to physically induce a fevered, sweaty vibe that washed over her film's audiences, an effect that had critics reaching for comparisons from William Faulkner's Southern Gothic tales to Robert Altman's trippy 3 Women. Yes, it was that good. In fact its Miami run at Coral Gables' Absinthe House, where it was met with more than a few catcalls and angry walkouts from insulted Argentine exiles, confirmed its intensity beyond the cognoscenti, as well as its intended target.
"They understand the film very well," Martel quips of this aggrieved crowd. "I am not saying that Miami's middle class is any worse than Buenos Aires'," she continues, "but it so happens that one of the middle class's greatest faults is its inability to recognize its own role in the current crisis." Having momentarily turned her ire from Kulchur, Martel softens and waxes philosophic: "Although I feel making films is my personal commitment to Argentina, films can't give answers. A solution to the political and economic crisis there isn't going to come from a movie. It's going to come from people. I'd just like to share some of my emotions with them."
So many films, so little time. How's a bleary-eyed cineaste supposed to wade through the Miami International Film Festival's schedule -- its largest ever -- and discover the truly worthy pictures? First, ignore both the opening- and closing-night features, crowd-pleasing slots usually given over to forgettable costume dramas, Merchant Ivory productions, or failed star-vehicles making a brief pit stop on their otherwise straight-to-video journey.
But if you must attend, the closing-night film is always misleadingly sold out: Several local law firms routinely buy up blocs of tickets and then never bother to actually show up at the Gusman Theater. Just wait on that evening's "rush" ticket line, which begins offering up unfilled seats ten minutes before showtime.
The one genuine must-see this year is South Korean director Park Chan-wook's Old Boy, which is quickly doing for South Korean cinema what Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf did for Iran in the mid-Nineties: heralding a vibrant new scene in a corner of the globe not generally thought of as a hotbed of art cinema. In this case, the art comes dipped in a bucket of gore, but Old Boy is still an ingeniously twisted psycho-sexual thriller unlike anything else you'll catch in 2005.
Of the homegrown attractions, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces handily dwarfs the Amer-indie competition, but then it has an unfair advantage. Back in 1970, upon Five Easy Pieces' original release, bucking the studio system was a downright revolutionary concept, not an equally viable career path to moguldom. Rafelson's cast more than rose to the occasion: If you're wondering just how Jack Nicholson became a star, to the point where these days he often slides into his tried-and-tested "Jack" shtick in lieu of acting, here's the celluloid explanation. The man is simply on fire as he portrays an oil-rig worker fleeing his genteel WASP background, yet ultimately as out of sorts in a Texas honky-tonk as in his childhood manor.
Rafelson, in town as one of the festival's judges, should be on hand for a Q&A session following the screening of a restruck print of his classic. There will no doubt be plenty of queries about his glory days amid the early Seventies high-water mark of American cinema (expect to see Kulchur swooning in the front row).
Documentaries are notably strong at the festival: Chilean director Patricio Guzmán has been limning his country's darkest years since a trunkful of his raw footage was spirited out of Santiago in the wake of Augusto Pinochet's 1973 seizure of power. Guzmán's latest, Salvador Allende, is partly a biopic of the socialist president Pinochet deposed and partly a heartfelt memoir of his efforts to make sense of the fractured decades since. With Pinochet now facing trial for the murder of several of Allende's supporters, and with many of Guzmán's interview subjects preparing to testify against the former strongman, Salvador Allende couldn't be more timely.
Our own ongoing nightmare, Iraq, receives an equally moving treatment in Gunner Palace. Co-directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein thankfully eschew the heavy-handed agitprop that has marked most previous attempts to depict the war in Iraq. Instead the pair embed themselves with a U.S. Army unit for the long haul, letting the soldiers themselves do most of the talking.
At least they let the soldiers try to talk. With precious few Arabic translators -- some even turning out to be double agents -- most of the troops are literally unable to communicate with the very people whose lives they're so desperately trying to help rebuild. The result is a series of futile raids alternating with "peacekeeping" duties that seem to consist of little more than driving around, praying a bomb doesn't go off nearby.
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Though the narrative flow is far too disjointed, many scenes in Gunner Palace linger memorably. Following a tense town council meeting, a U.S. commander hands one councilwoman a pistol. She's been receiving death threats from insurgents -- not only is she participating in the new provisional government, but adding insult to fundamentalist injury, she's a woman taking on a leadership role. A proffered handgun and an apologetic shrug seem to be about the only real protection American forces can offer those Iraqis earnestly trying to move their nation forward. Watching this woman's subsequent shaky attempts at target practice, with her teacher darting for cover, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
There's much the same reaction as a frustrated G.I. tries to deploy his own version of winning hearts and minds. Squatting down before a wide-eyed Iraqi child, he pulls out a familiar doll from his backpack. "This is SpongeBob SquarePants," he patiently explains to the spellbound kid. "He's very popular back in the United States."
The Holy Girl screens at the Tower Theater (1508 SW Eighth St., Miami) on Monday, February 7, at 7:00 p.m. and at the Regal South Beach Cinema (1100 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach) on Thursday, February 10, at 6:45 p.m. For a complete Miami International Film Festival schedule, see www.miamifilmfestival.com.